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Here’s how to solve the ‘hyper problem’ of interrupted learning

Governments around the world are currently thinking about how to ensure young people recover from lost learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this blog, Tim Oates CBE discusses what needs to be taken into account when forming catch-up plans by exploring research that can be used to help with decision making.

Learning recovery
Recovery learning is a hyper-problem

The development of a national approach to ‘learning after interruption’ has been controversial. There are plenty of headline grabbing suggestions about what we might do, but it’s complex to all at one once hold in our heads everything which we need to do. It’s one of those intimidating ‘hyper-problems’. If we just concentrate on one thing - such as extending the school day - we will get it wrong. It reminds me of the work on reducing class size - you can reduce class size from 32 to 26, but if there’s no change in what is actually done in the classroom, then there’s no positive impact.

The problem we face is that young people have been out of a school setting for different amounts of time, estimated for some to be up to a third of a year, and the impact on education is therefore likely to be highly variable and individualised. Simply extending the school day and just doing more of the same is not going to address the scale or nature of the problem. Just as we have followed the science in our response to the pandemic, we need to do the same in our schools. And there’s plenty of research to go on.


Recovery learning must be a collective effort

To start with, we need to acknowledge that teachers have been affected just as much as learners. Surveys tell us that school staff are exhausted. They have had to undertake one of the most pressured transformations of learning ever seen in peacetime: first a move to online learning, then complex management of distanced groups and isolating children, two years of novel assessments, and now management of a return to a ‘new normal’. Strategies for returning young people need to attend not only to their individual circumstances but the circumstances of teachers. We need to aim at approaches which genuinely address the learning issues which result from interrupted learning, but also are manageable for teachers, and ultimately reduce teacher load, not increase it.

We need to acknowledge that teachers have been affected just as much as learners.


The next thing I am going to emphasise is controversial. We need to attend to learners’ workloads to reduce the burden on teachers. Learning happens in the changed knowledge, skills and behaviours of each young person. It is their learning. To achieve this they will need to work, and work in a focussed and effective way. And we know that this learning consists of four things: high quality contact time, social learning, quiet reflection, and self-study. In all the discussion of ‘school improvement’ there has been a tendency to focus on what schools need to do and not on what pupils need to do. Making sure that all four of those things are happening may be schools’ responsibility, but pupils need to make use of the processes which are not part of contact time – they have skin in the game.

In particular, the suggestion that ‘homework doesn’t work’ simply stems from the findings of studies which do not sufficiently scrutinise the quality of what is done, nor the existence of timely and useful feedback, nor whether the necessary focus on misconceptions is in place. The right ‘self-study’ does work - since time spent thinking outside contact time is highly related to success. The upshot is this...the workload for recovery learning should not be seen as solely the workload of schools - it is a shared workload of pupils and teachers. But with the right approaches this does not need to be a mountain to climb.


We need not speculate…we know what will work

So...what does powerful, relevant research tell us about the action we should take? John Hattie’s analysis of education in New Zealand after the interruption to learning following the Christchurch earthquake shows how dedicated action elevated educational standards above where they would have stood had the interruption to education not occurred. That’s remarkable. There, they attended to the individual pattern of learning loss and the need for re-socialisation into learning. But there’s more. Dependable research comes from very positive outcomes from learning teaching and learning approaches implemented in New Zealand, the comparison of effective and ineffective approaches in Louisiana (after Hurricane Katrina) and from highly effective approaches used around the world, described and supported by the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies.

This is what I have distilled from research: and it for sure is not ‘the same, but faster, or ‘the same, but more of it...’.


Honest discussions of ‘what happened during interruption...’.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but our starting point should not be content gaps: we know that even high attaining students tended to focus on subjects which they enjoy or are committed to, and wound down on others. Initial action should attend to decay in learning habits and changes in learning dispositions. And we must identify welfare and safeguarding matters and address them. Of course some stories will be positive as well as negative, and can form an exemplar for others. We know that the impact of interruption was highly individual, and we need to start by understanding the way in which interruption has played out for each person. This does not lead to a highly individualised curriculum - that’s an error - but it informs the action which teachers and pupils jointly should take, drawing on the approaches below.


Using tests to establish learning gaps

Yes, tests can be stressful, but with good support and swift, supportive action on outcomes, they can be extremely helpful. Despite bucking the trend amongst developed nations by improving our primary system in maths and literacy, we still have too many pupils coming up from primary with undue weaknesses in fundamentals of maths (particularly number) and in reading and writing. Some educators say that it’s narrow to focus on maths and literacy, but there is nothing as narrowing as not being able to read and write to an adequate level. And these basics have clearly been affected by interrupted education, right the way through the system. Accurately determining problems by using dependable tests of reading age and mathematics, and examining samples of writing (against exemplars of expected levels) can lead to swift and effective support. Not doing it can adversely affect attainment right across the curriculum.


Concentrating on the fundamental, ‘threshold concepts’ in subjects

England’s Department for Education is producing valuable guidance on ‘core elements’ of key subjects. Failure to master core concepts in subjects can lead pupils into enduring and accumulated confusion and lack of wider understanding of subject content. And that ramps up teacher workload. Failure to grasp them is a strong predictor of poor performance in the subject as a whole. And experienced teachers are highly skilled at developing accessible and exciting approaches to learning these core elements. It’s what they excel at. These ‘concentrated’ programmes are often referred to as ‘accelerated learning’ - and they are used highly successfully in developing countries to support those with interrupted education. But while they may increase ‘acceleration’ in learning, the term is misleading. They tend to focus on learning fewer things in greater depth - aiming for really secure understanding, through careful variations in contexts, applications, and examples - and can include things emerging from cognitive science, such as comparing correct and incorrect responses and ideas.


Monitoring learning through high quality formative assessment

Monitoring learning and acting immediately on misconceptions is also essential. My long-held view is that we need to flood the system with high quality questions and use them throughout contact time and in self-study. Lucy Crehan and James Stigler's observational work shows that this would align us with high performing, equitable systems such as Japan and Shanghai. Good questions stimulate thinking as well as produce evidence on where each pupil is in their understanding and achievement. And this will familiarise pupils with the forms of questions which they will experience in exams. Dylan Wiliam recently has said ‘..I think that good formative assessment may be essentially about asking good questions...’. And I agree with that. And it’s not just about using good questions, it’s about what we do with responses - using incorrect answers to highlight and correct misconceptions, to encourage discussion of why one response is right and another is not - with swift, supportive action following testing, not just delayed bald reporting of results. And there’s one more thing about questions. Karpicke’s work shows that learning something and then responding to questions actually consolidates the paths to memory - it entrenches the learning more effectively than learning and then relearning something.


A focus on complex language, ‘production’ and thinking outside contact time

The late Jane Mellanby’s work showed that complex language (‘...what would happen if that were not the case...’) encourages development of reasoning and analysis. This accelerates learning across the whole of the curriculum. Some young people never are exposed to such language outside school - so it’s essential that it is present in education. Add to this an emphasis on ‘production’  - we know that writing something externalises your own thinking...and allows you to think about it and allows teachers to know what you are thinking. The more writing (and drawing, and making) which is done, the more you get access to the form of your own thoughts and the ways in which they can be refined and reflected upon. It’s not simply that higher attainers write more...they become higher attaining because they write more, and reflect on it. This then leads to the importance of thinking outside contact time - by completing well-designed tasks, by pondering on rich, set questions, by reading recommended texts and so on. By returning to the things expected in these activities in the next contact time, the expectation that quiet reflection and focussed work are required outside contact time becomes an ordinary part of each young person’s life. And so the partnership which makes high quality education - the work by the teacher, and the work by the pupil - becomes established. This does not mean more marking - it can create valuable discussion of ‘well...what did you come up with...’, to drive social learning in the class; it can create valuable evidence which we may need in 2022 if some pupils cannot attend exams. This can ease, not escalate the load on the teacher.

This research suggests that Lauren Hampshire-Dell’s recent brilliant description of the refinement of her own teaching is more than just a personal epiphany - it is consistent with the very best research. ‘My pretty slides and worksheets have gone. In their place I now narrate, discuss and model my every thought and decision...’. - and the title of the article: Are the best teachers the ones with the fewest gimmicks? We’re all trained to deliver all-singing, all-dancing lessons - but what if we stripped all that away....’.


The continuing value of high-quality textbooks

Lauren refers to thumb-worn texts, and our Assessment Research division is completing a survey of research on textbooks and it’s clear from the evidence from high performing systems that they still have a valuable role. Teachers can refer pupils to a key section or a defined task to be done. Pupils can go back over things or look forward to think about coming topics. They are not to be underestimated. And of course high quality digital resources have been essential during interruption to learning - well-designed and carefully chosen applications have helped, when learners have devices, good broadband, and an appropriate place to work. There are the challenges however: some of the 250,000+ applications are not well-designed. It is difficult to make an informed choice. And having each pupil in a suitable place in a suitable frame of mind cannot be assured in the same way as can happen in school. That’s a big threat to equity. High quality, carefully chosen paper and digital resources can co-exist in brilliant combination, and we will be publishing soon on this. For the moment, it’s vital that teachers share experience of digital resources to build up market pressure for high quality.

It’s vital that teachers share experience of digital resources to build up market pressure for high quality.


We should aim to improve attainment, not just recover

All of this moves us away from ‘the same, only faster’ and ‘the same, but for a longer day’. It all is heavily evidence-driven, and oriented to a leaner, more focussed workload for teachers. The DfE are supporting through curriculum guidance, and exam boards can help with formative assessment and rich questions. And it holds the potential for something special - not just helping those most affected by interrupted learning, but actually improving both equity and attainment.


Recovery learning need not be expensive

Finally, a great deal has been made of how much money it will take to deliver recovery. Is it £1.5bn or £15bn? What I have recommended in this blog is both underpinned by research and does not demand massive expenditure - either in funding or effort. It does require some shifts in practice - but any ‘front end’ effort will tend to reduce workload over time.


This is a longer version of a blog which first appeared as an exclusive on the Schools Week website 


About the author


Tim Oates CBE

Tim Oates CBE has been the Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment since he joined the organisation in May 2005. Previously he had been the Head of Research and Statistics at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency for the best part of a decade. In 2011 he Chaired the Expert Panel as part of the Department of Education's National Curriculum Review. Tim was awarded CBE in the 2015 New Year's Honours for services to education. Read Schools Week's profile of Tim